“Dirty Old Town” is an affectionate, if scattered and overstuffed, love letter to holdouts from the pre-gentrification era of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, when the area was a hotbed for artists and colorful lowlifes. Shot breathlessly in the August heat, the film drips with sweaty ambiance and guerrilla-style energy, which, if applied to a less hackneyed story, could have produced something truly special. As is, directors Jenner Furst and Daniel B. Levin’s feature still boasts plenty of rough charm, and could find a receptive cult audience at some of the more eccentric fests and Gotham arthouse venues.
Heading up a primarily non-pro cast is William “Billy” Leroy, the real-life biker owner of the Bowery institution Billy’s Antiques and Props, here playing a fictionalized version of himself. Hawking his strange wares out of a fenced-in tent enclosure on Houston Street, Billy is two months late with his rent and has 72 hours to pay up before his landlord sells off the property to be redeveloped as a Starbucks. Complicating his task is the constant presence of a jittery, crooked undercover cop (Scott Dillin) and a menacing gang boss (Sergio Valentin); coming to his aid is a friendly middle-aged mobster (Nicholas De Cegli); populating the rest of the scene are scores of junkies, thieves and local curiosities.
Drifting dramatically through this sordid milieu is a Dolores Haze-like young drug addict (Janell Shirtcliff) who frequents the shop. Seeming just as likely to seduce him as to claw his eyes out at any given second, she sells Billy an antique bronze bust of Hitler, recently stolen from an admirer, which sets off a chain of conflicts.
In the early going, the film’s loose hangout vibe provides its strongest moments, and scenes of Billy haggling with customers or De Cegli wandering aimlessly through the San Gennaro festival boast a flavorful authenticity. One can imagine much of this footage being incorporated into a documentary just as easily as a fiction feature, but having decided on the latter, the filmmakers pack in a bit too much narrative incident for the pic’s framework to handle. An elaborate series of mishaps involving a drug shipment and the aforementioned Fuhrer-bust feels far too conventional for a film of this type, dragging things forward when it would be better off simply lingering.
Furst and Levin (who also scripted alongside Julia Willoughby Nason) are hardly the first to eulogize Gotham’s pre-Giuliani era, when the city center was, as James Murphy put it, “filthy but fine.” (To that end, Billy’s cranky rant against “flip-flops on the Bowery” is a gem.) Yet the decision to memorialize the LES by spotlighting characters drawn almost exclusively from its most predatory elements is a problematic one, and at times risks glorifying the loss of the area’s perceived edginess more than the loss of its culture.
While the standout performance belongs to the beguilingly distant Shirtcliff, Ronnie Sunshine puts in a bracingly gonzo turn as a lonely shut-in cokehead happy to trade drugs for female company, peppering his guests with rapid-fire sexual come-ons alongside invitations to synagogue and marriage proposals. Music, from the likes of the Brian Jonestown Massacre on the soundtrack and local troubador Lorraine Leckie in the film itself, is well curated.